You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Cold War Heats Up in Syria

Why Russia won't allow an intervention

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The violence in Syria has descended into sectarian warfare, attracting Islamic extremists from all over the world. Tensions with Turkey have escalated as the conflict claims Turkish lives and threatens to spill across its border. The West, wringing its hands over whether and how to intervene, has offered a diplomatic solution, but one that requires an impossible, simultaneous laying down of arms. Russia, in the meantime, continues to send its navy to putter around menacingly at the Syrian port of Tartus, where it has a small base; it also continues to sell arms to Assad’s regime, despite U.S. objections. Nevertheless, Russia has expressed its hope and willingness to see the diplomatic solution put to work to avert a potential years-long civil war.

Sound familiar? That was June 2012, just under a year ago. Arguably, the only thing that’s changed in Syria since then is the scale: more casualties, more extremists, more violence, more spillover. What hasn’t changed is the rest of the world’s approach to the mess. Obama continues to waffle and stall, the Europeans continue to push for at least arming the rebels, and the Russians continue to hold the stay-out-of-it line, while doing little to hide the fact that their ships are massing in Tartus and that they’re shipping weapons to Assad. 

What’s Russia’s endgame? That hasn’t changed much either: stall, maintain the status quo as long as possible. It is for this reason that Russian ships continue to cruise around in Tartus and that Moscow keeps sending arms to Damascus. The Russian ships and the anti-aircraft missiles won’t be used against the rebels—who have no planes or ships—but, rather, are Russia’s way of maintaining equilibrium. If the Saudis and Qataris arm the rebels, Russia will arm Assad. If the West makes moves to intervene, Russia ships and anti-aircraft supplies will have made the moves exponentially more risky. But the reality, as familiar as it is, is evolving, and it's making it increasingly difficult for Russia to tread water. “Russia would prefer a status quo, yes, but everyone here understands that a status quo no longer exists,” says Fyodr Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “It’s a slowly disintegrating situation. The erosion of the regime is acknowledged by all, but what is the time horizon? How long will it take till it finally crumbles? Russia can wait, but the U.S. can’t.”

Russia is willing to wait in part because it has, and has always had, a fundamentally different conception of the conflict. “For Americans to understand the Russian position, you have to understand that the American, Western position is not totally right,” says Maxim Yusin, the deputy foreign affairs editor of the main Russian daily, Kommersant. “The Russian position is less emotional and more pragmatic. Russia doesn’t believe at face value all these emotional declarations that a bloody dictator is stifling freedom and democracy.” Since the conflict began, Russia has been pointing out that if Assad goes, those that replace him may not necessarily be liberal, Western-minded democrats. And what follows the end of this war may not necessarily be peace. Because, in Moscow’s view, what’s happening in Syria is a fundamentally local, religious fight, but one, as Yusin puts it, “to which we’ve all become prisoner.”

“Moscow understands that something has to be done because the war has been going on for two years and it has to stop,” he explains. “But if Assad’s opponents win, there will be a bloodbath. Shiites and Alawites will be slaughtered.” Moreover, he adds, echoing the official Russian position, that the successors to Assad will likely be the ones flying the black flag of jihad and sponsoring terrorism outside Syria’s borders. Lukyanov points out that Syria has long been home to those displaced by the upheavals in the Caucasus, which has become a hotbed of terrorism and Islamist insurrection. “Getting rid of a dictatorial but secular regime, and replacing it with an Islamist regime creates yet another support network for the terrorists in our backyard,” Lukyanov explains. Yusin makes a starker analogy. “Assad does not want to target America, but these guys do,” he says. “These are thousands of potential Tsarnaevs, and France and Britain want to arm them!”

One argument the Russians make officially is that all of this posturing, all of this standing behind Assad and sending ribboned delegations to show the Kremlin’s support, is not so much about Assad, but about principle. Assad won an election, and now the West and its Arab allies have decided to topple him -- as the Kremlin sees it, in order to weaken Iran, Syria’s main ally. (American meddling has ramifications at home, too: Less than a year after Tahrir Square, Moscow exploded in anti-Putin protests with Western leaders, like Hillary Clinton, egging them on—at least that’s how the Kremlin saw it.) And if Syria goes, what happens to Iran, and, by extension, Russian influence in the region? They lost Saddam, they lost Qaddafi; now Assad, too?

This is the crux of the issue. Moscow may not have a long term plan—in fact, while it knows that the peace conference it's co-sponsoring with the U.S. will inevitably fail, it continues to push the idea anyway—but fighting the fight, acknowledging the proxy war aloud is, in some ways, all that matters. “The issue isn’t a love for Assad, or our port at Tartus, or even the arms sales,” says Georgy Mirsky, a venerable Russian scholar of the Middle East. “These things matter, of course, but they are not the main thing. We can live without Syria, we can live without Assad, but to allow someone to say that Moscow is dancing to Washington’s tune would be unacceptable. Unacceptable.” This, Mirsky says, is a holdover from the Soviet days, which, at the Russian Foreign Ministry, have never quite receded. “Soviet rule has been gone for twenty years, but the Soviet mentality remains, especially at the very top,” Mirsky explains. “There is a very strong suspicion that you can’t trust the Americans in any way because they’ll take every opportunity to do something nasty to us. So the instinct is that if the Americans are against someone in the Third World, then we have to be for this person. And vice-versa. This all comes from the Soviet mentality.” This would explain why Mirsky once heard a Russian diplomat say, “I would rather have a nuclear Iran than a pro-American Iran.”

The problem with this approach, if you’re America, is that there isn’t much you can do with a fluid, roving check-mate. There is even less you can do when your ostensible partners in bringing the two sides together project onto you their worst fears and suspicions, and when everything is done not to win, but to prolong a status quo that no longer exists. 

Julia Ioffe is a senior editor at The New Republic.